The Joy of Scraping

By Courtney Miller; Oboe Professor, University of Iowa

The purpose of this article is to address our overall process of reed making and serve as a guide to develop a balanced reed with a balanced approach. In preparation to writing this article, I asked my students at the University of Iowa to share what they find to be most helpful about my teaching regarding their success at the reed table. They overwhelmingly agreed that it is my overall approach, problem solving techniques, and outlook that they find most beneficial. This article outlines the basic principles of my reed making process that serve me every time I sit at the reed desk.

I will begin by sharing a few guiding philosophies that I have received from my teachers that still influence me daily: Sharp Knife, Sharp Knife, Sharp Knife and being able to clip an infinitesimal amount off of the tip. To this day, if I ruin a reed most of the time it is due to a knife that is not at optimal sharpness. The cane should flee from the edge of the knife. The moment when you sit at the reed desk and you are unable to remove cane in exactly the manner which you desire, then it is time to sharpen your knife. Often, we become task-oriented while scraping and see stopping to sharpen our knives as a possible hindrance or interruption. However, sharpening our knife will only give us more control and sophistication as we near the finishing of our reeds.

A common beginning reed making mistake that I see frequently is the inadvertent removal of a corner. When this happens and we take off a corner of the reed, we blame ourselves. The blame game is not productive or helpful, yet it is a common side effect of removing a corner or making some other mistake in scraping. Mistakes will be made in reed making; with practice, they will become fewer and less severe. Mistakes do not mean you are incompetent, rather they point to a problem that needs to be addressed. Accidentally removing corners from the reed is often the result of a desire to remove cane from the tip, a dull knife, and using pressure instead of the edge of the knife. This is something we have all done. I don’t know a single professional oboist who has never accidentally removed a corner from the reed. Ruining a reed doesn’t mean you are a hopeless reed maker. Rather, I would argue that accidentally ruining reeds in the pursuit of learning how to further define and balance your reeds will lead to additional success in the art of reed making. The trick is to use this mistake to correct your technique and move forward.  

This brings me to the next principle handed down from John Mack - “A reed is an inanimate object.” He said this weekly and even had it crocheted and framed on his office wall. I interpreted this to mean that we control the reed and determine its fate, not the other way around. We are the master of the reed. Another level of interpretation from this simple saying, and one that I teach fervently, is the need for emotional detachment from the reed. They are just objects. They don’t have feelings and we certainly shouldn’t allow them to overly influence ours. 

The following guidelines allow me to keep a healthy and balanced mindset when I scrape reeds.

1. Don’t scrape a reed for more than 15-20 minutes. (They get over soaked and you lose your objectivity)

2. Make several reeds every week so you are fine if they don’t all turn out beautifully.

3. If a reed doesn’t work it is not a reflection of who you are as a person, a reed maker, or a musician. (Again - reeds are inanimate objects)

4. Be methodical. Always scrape your reed with a purpose and according to its needs.

5. Always practice before reed making. It ensures that you are functioning properly and can help you more clearly define and identify what you want in your next batch of reeds. There is a temptation to spend a disproportionate of time at the reed desk in search of “better reeds.” Often if we play the reeds we have, we can adjust them and improve their functionality even if they aren’t perfect. Remember - we are more than our reeds.

When I sit down to scrape a reed, my process is defined by the following hierarchy. I pursue response, stability and then tone. I save the tone for last. It is far too easy to pursue a “dark, deep” sound on the reed at the expense of more important things such as response and stability (pitch). I believe almost all oboists are tone junkies at some level. To this day I still have to remind myself of the hierarchy of response, stability, and tone. Maybe when I’m older and wiser no such reminders will be necessary.

This may seem like an overly simplistic approach, but I find it indispensable. Anytime I break or deviate from any of these guidelines, I usually regret it. When I am tempted to stray, it is due to a feeling of “necessity or urgency” and perhaps a misguided concern about “sounding good.” If I scrape the reed in this type of mindset, there is often an underlying franticness, which does not necessarily lead to the most successful venture. I notice much better results when I am grounded, centered, confident, and joyfully pursuing our craft.

The reed desk is a place for us to escape from the world and hone our craft. However, I have also seen stress, frustration, and impatience rear their heads at the reed desk. With the intent to help eradicate the latter list of symptoms, my students encouraged me to name this article “The Joy of Scraping.” It is perhaps a bit simple. However, if you find yourself frustrated or tense or ruining reed after reed, then take a step back away from the reed desk. Not all of our reeds will work. This is a fact. When they don’t work, we can look for reasons why and take logical, informed steps to fix the problem.

Perhaps one of the most important things to keep in mind at the reed desk is the knowledge that you know how to make reeds and you are an excellent reed maker. This becomes even more crucial and necessary if you make a bad batch of reeds.

If you happen to make a batch of reeds that is less than ideal, it in no way means you have any less expertise, nor does it discount the numerous successful reeds you have made during your journey as an oboist. I think sometimes we tell ourselves lies at the reed desk when we are not met with overwhelming success. These lies may resemble thoughts along the lines of “I don’t know what I’m doing” or “I don’t understand how to make a reed.” 

When these thoughts come in, they have nothing to do with our knowledge or skill as reed makers. Not only do they have no basis in reality, but they can hinder our ability to step back and objectively assess the situation. 

Reeds are a life-long journey and part of our artistic expression. They are tools that help us communicate our art. We will always be more than our reeds and we can always make more. We define them and not the other way around.


Dr. Courtney Miller is the oboe professor at the University of Iowa where she teaches private oboe lessons, reed classes, master classes, and chamber music. Prior to her position at the University of Iowa, Dr. Miller served on faculty at Boston College and Ashland University.

Her recent album Modern Fairy Tales, released on Centaur Records, is readily available on iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify. Fanfare Magazine hails Courtney Miller as “a performer of considerable skill, with an unfailingly lovely sound, abundant technical ability, and a special gift for turning notes into poetry.” As an orchestral musician, she served as the English hornist with the Quad City Symphony for two seasons. She performs frequently with numerous orchestras around the country including Orchestra Iowa (IA), Portland Symphony (ME), the Jacksonville Symphony (FL), among many others.

Dr. Courtney Miller has a Bachelor of Music from Florida State University, a Master of Music from Cleveland Institute of Music and a Doctor of Musical Arts from Boston University. Her teachers include John Ferrillo, John Mack, and Eric Ohlsson.

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This post was made possible in part thanks to support from The New England Conservatory’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship department.

You sound quite wonderful. They might like to be a professional master class reviewer at The John Mack Oboe Camp in the beautiful N.C. mountains for one week in the summer. Google it, it’s online and recognize Dena S.’s name…Cleveland Institute and Director of the John Mack Camp. Master Class Professional are required to be John Mack students. ( I attended once 20 years ago when John Mack was alive and now three times in a row the past summers . ) It is a very special week you might want to look into. ) I am very likely going to sign up for your reed making class offered here. ( I buy pre-cut and gouged cane from my private teacher, as I mostly am mostly a Community oboist and not going to invest in the equipment.) It never hurts to learn all the steps and stages, though. I also have a BFA in Painting and Printmaking, so the hands-on reed making fascinate me. I have studied some but not enough.

So much good and sensible advice here. As regards damage to the reed tip, a major factor to bear in mind is the technique used to glide (or drive!) the knife forwards. I have discussed all this in detail in Chapter 7B/C of ‘Understanding the Oboe Reed’. Opinions are strongly held, as in all oboe and reed matters. But a knife used to scrape lightly and vertically, rather than pare the reed, gives far more sensitive control and is much less likely to inflict damage.
And as I point out, there is no mystery to reed-making: the result can only be a product of the cane chosen and what we do with it. I have tried to simplify every aspect in the book so that oboists of every style can profit from a wider and clearer understanding.

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